Monday, January 29, 2007

What is a Jewish Myth?

The tendency of the classical Jewish tradition [is] to liquidate myth - Gerhsom Scholem

Behind speculation, and beneath gnosis and anti-gnosis constructions, we find myths - Paul Ricoeur

What is a Jewish myth? For quite a number of people, that is a nonsensical question. Many have argued that there is no such thing as Jewish myths; being monotheistic, Judaism is a mythless system of belief. You see this thinking, for example, in the title of Frank Moore Cross’s book on ancient Israelite beliefs, Canaanite Myth and Hebrew Saga. As far as Cross (and many others) are concerned, only polytheists have myths. Cross had to hunt around for another word to describe the “master stories” of the Hebrew Bible, and he chose “saga.” Elliot Ginsburg writes, ‘Judaic scholars through the 1970’s tended to define myth narrowly and negatively, linking it with so-called “pagan” religions. They therefore tended to see Judaism as a demythologizing tradition, broken only by the “mythic resurgence” of Kabbalah.’ Truth is however, that Judaism has always had its own complex, compelling mythos, starting with the Bible and extending up to today. Most Jewish myths, such as are found in the Midrash, are “spiritual” myths that incorporate divine things and supernatural times and events, but Jews also have secular myths; some of the best modern examples revolve around the founding of the state of Israel. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Jewish or not, what precisely is a “myth?” Set aside for the moment the common use of myth today to mean simply “something that isn’t true,” and instead consider these more sophisticated definitions of “myth".....to read the rest of the article, go to http://www.llewellynjournal.com/article/1302

Zal g'mor - to own the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, go to: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

The Guf: Mystical Body, Well of Souls

I was just browsing on Wikipedia when I came across an article on the Guf, or Guf ha-Briyot, the Treasury

[Illustration: Doves suffused in radiance, Die Bucher der Bibel, E.M. Lilien]

of Souls, which entered pop consciousness with the 1988 apocalyptic horror film, The Seventh Sign, starring Demi Moore. The entry was very peculiar and had already been flagged as needing some attention, so I took a turn at tweaking it. This is more or less what I wrote:

The word Guf is derived from Hebrew for "body/corpse". The Guf can also be referred to as the Otzer (Hebrew for "treasury"). It is the source of every human soul. In some traditions the Guf is located in the celestial plane of Aravot, other times it is located beneath God's Throne of Glory, which resides "above" Aravot. Though some cite Isa. 57:16 as the source of the concept, Isaiah never uses the word, so the Talmud offers one of the earliest direct references to the Guf and teaches that the Messiah will not come until the Guf is emptied of all its souls (Yev. 62a-63b; A.V. 5a). This is given a longer, if more enigmatic treatment in a work of early Kabbalah, Sefer Bahir:

In its [? - there is no clear antecedent, perhaps the 'World to Come' discussed earlier] hand is the treasury of souls. In the time when Israel is good, these souls are worthy of going forth and coming into this world. But if they are not good, then [these souls] do not go forth. We therefore say, "The son of David will not come until all the souls in the Guf are completed." What is the meaning of "all the souls in the Guf [Body]"? We say this refers to all the souls in the body of The Adam [Kadmon]. [When they are completed] new ones will be worthy of going forth [Bahir 184].

The peculiar idiom of describing the treasury of souls as a "body," as I indicate in my translation, is connected to the mythic tradition of Adam Kadmon, the primordial human. Adam Kadmon, God's "original intention" for humanity, was a supernal being, androgynous and macro-cosmic (co-equal in size with the universe). When this spiritual Adam sinned, his cosmic-sized soul burst asunder and humanity was demoted to the flesh and blood, bifurcated and mortal creatures we are now. According to Kabbalah, every human soul is just a fragment (or fragments) cycling out of the great "world-soul" of Adam Kadmon. Hence, every human soul comes from a "guf ", that being the supernal body of Adam Kadmon. Part of the project of humanity it to effect the tikkun, the restoration, of the soul of Adam Kadmon.


In keeping with other Jewish legends that envision souls as bird-like (Derived from the Biblical notion that the dead "chirp" - Isa. 29:4), the Guf is sometimes described as a columbarium, a dove cote. This connects it to a related legend: the "Palace of the Bird's Nest," the dwelling place of the Messiah's soul until his advent (Zohar II: 8a-9a).

Again in the Guf we encounter the mystical notion of the whole universe being permeated with consciousness. It also reinforces the notion of the interconnectedness, the brotherhood (sorry, there just is no gender neutral idiom for this concept) of humanity which is at the heart of the Genesis account. The legend of the Guf, however, asserts our essential spiritual as well as biological relatedness.

I will further consider this with follow up entries on Adam Kadmon. See:
Adam Kadmon I: Spiritual Man, Primordial Being
Adam Kadmon II: The Human Cosmos, Conduit of Light...

Zal g'mor /Go forth and learn - more can be found in the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Sunday, January 07, 2007

Winter Events for Rabbi Dennis

The EJMMM is now in release. Here are some upcoming events in January Feburary, and March:

[Google map showing the location of the Barnes and Noble book signing on Jan. 21st]

Sunday, Jan. 14

There will be a book release party for the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism 4-PM - 6PM, Jan. 14th at Congregation Kol Ami, 1887 Timber Creek Rd., Flower Mound TX. I will be speaking on "The Secret Bible." Refreshments will follow. The event is open to the public. Call 972-538-1938 for more information. For directions, click here:


Sunday, Jan. 21

I will be at a book-signing for the Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism, at the Lewsiville, TX Barnes and Noble (Roundgrove/Hebron Pkwy off I-35 Stemmons - see the map above).

Saturday, Feb. 3

At 7PM I will be speaking and doing a book signing at the Denton TX Barnes and Noble (Golden Triangle Mall, Loop 288). My topic will be "The Kabbalah of the Bible."

Sunday, Feb. 4

I will be offering two presentations at the JFGD Yom Limud/"Day of Learning." the programs will run from 9:30AM - 12 Noon. The first program is entitled, "Garments of Torah: Secret readings from the Bible and the common sense lessons they teach us" and "Demons and Dybbuks and Golems, Oh My!: An Introduction to the monstrous in Judaism." Yom Limud will be held at the Greater Dallas Jewish Community Center, 7800 North Haven Rd., Dallas, 75230. Interested individuals must register to attend. To learn more, contact the JCC at (214) 739-2737.

Sunday, March 18

I will be speaking 10AM Sunday, March 19th at Congregation Albert (Louisiana NE) in ALbuquerque, NM. The Congregation Albert Brotherhood offers an "esoteric" breakfast (their words, not mine). To learn more, visit http://www.congregationalbert.org/ca-bro.htm

Thursday, January 04, 2007

Leviathan II: Demon of the Sea, Messianic Meal

[Illustration: Serpentine sea creature from Die Bucher der Bibel, by E.M. Lilien]

We have already gotten a sense of Leviathan in Biblical myth, but now the great sea dragon deserves a second look for how the myth is further developed in Talmud. A generally reliable principle in the rabbinic reading of the Bible is that the Sages usually begin by amplifying and elaborating upon what is already found in the Bible. Like a pearl forming around a grain of sand, the Sages build upon what is already there adding layers of teachings. Some times, however, the Sages seize upon a seemingly incidental aspect of a Biblical tradition to elevate and forefront it in remarkable ways. Thus we find this elaborate and fascinating passage in Baba Batra which uses multiple Biblical citations to construct its narrative of the final end of death, chaos, entropy and evil (personified by Leviathan) in the World-to-Come:

Rav Judah said in the name of Rav: All that the Blessed Holy One created [in all] his world is male and female. Likewise, Leviathan the slant serpent and Leviathan the torturous serpent he created male and female; and had they mated with one another they would have destroyed the whole world. What [then] did the Blessed Holy One do? He castrated the male and killed the female preserving it in salt for the righteous in the World to Come; for it is written: “And he will slay the dragon that is in the sea.” And also Behemoth on a thousand hills was created male and female, and had they mated with one another they would have destroyed the whole world. What did the Blessed Holy One, do? He castrated the male and cooled the female and preserved it for the righteous for the world to come; for it is written: "See now his strength is in his loins" — this refers to the male; "and his force is in the stays of his body," — this refers to the female. There also, [in the case of Leviathan], he should have castrated the male and cooled the female [why then did he kill the female]?... [Because a] female [fish] preserved in salt is tastier…Then here also [in the case of Behemoth] he should have preserved the female in salt? — Salted fish is palatable, salted flesh is not.

This is one of several mythic accounts of how God will eventually subdue moral and human chaos in the End of Days. To convey this in mythic terms, Rabbinic tradition identifies three personified (zooified?) chaos beasts. Behemoth is Leviathan's land-based counterpart. Ziz, the avian monster, appears a number of times in legends, but is the least prominent of the "Big Three."

First, the Sages read the Biblical accounts in such a way that they detect two Behemoth - the Hebrew word itself is plural - being described. And since Isaiah uses two titles for Leviathan - "slant serpent" and "torturous serpent" - Rav Judah is reading this to mean there are actually two monsters. The bi-sexuality of the creatures reflects the worldview of the Sages, who see the universe as both sentient and permeated with male and female forces (See the earlier entries, "The Sacred Feminine I and II").

In keeping with the notion that unifying males and female forces has cosmic consequences, once coupled these chaos monsters would undo creation and return it to primordial darkness (sort of like what almost happened when Zuul the Gatekeeper and Vinz Clortho the Keymaster got together in "Ghostbusters," only without the Staypuff Marshmellow Man - what, you think Dan Ackroyd was making up all that Mesopotamian stuff out of thin air?). Therefore God ensures the survival of our world by keeping these forces apart. But there is a purpose in God's decision not to totally purge the chaotic and evil from creation (See the entry "A Necessary Evil").

And most surprising of all, when the final rectification comes, we will participate in perfecting the work of creation by literally "consuming" the chaos, both utterly dominating but also assimilating it into ourselves in a "nutritious" (rather than harmful) manner. This idea that in Messianic times we will banquet upon the Beast is derived from an enigmatic verse, Ps. 74:14, "...it was You who crushed the head of Leviathan, who made him food for the people of the desert." Baba Batra continues:

When R. Dimi came he said in the name of R. Johanan: When Leviathan is hungry he emits [fiery] breath from his mouth and causes all the waters of the deep to boil; for it is said: "He makes the deep to boil like a pot." And if he were not to put his head into the Garden of Eden, no creature could stand his [foul] odor [Other legends explain that Eden has an insanely pleasant smell that can endure on things for generations; here it is used as a kind of cosmic deodorant]; for it is said: "He makes the sea like a spiced broth." When he is thirsty he makes numerous furrows in the sea; for it is said: "He makes a path to shine after him."...Rabbah said in the name of R. Johanan: The Blessed Holy One will in time to come make a banquet for the righteous from the flesh of Leviathan; for it is said: "Companions will make a banquet of it…." Companions must mean scholars, for it is said: "You that dwell in the gardens, the companions hearken for your voice; cause me to hear it…." Rabbah in the name of R. Johanan further stated: The Blessed Holy One will in time to come make a tabernacle for the righteous from the skin of Leviathan; for it is said: "Can you fill tabernacles with his skin?" If a man is worthy, a tabernacle is made for him [in the World-to-Come]; if he is not worthy [of this] a [mere] covering is made for him, for it is said: And his head with a fish covering. If a man is [sufficiently] worthy a covering is made for him; if he is not worthy [even of this], a necklace is made for him, for it is said: "And necklaces about your neck." If he is worthy [of it] a necklace is made for him; if he is not worthy [even of this] an amulet is made for him; as it is said: "And you will bind him for your maidens." [the meaning of the Hebrew word for an amulet is "binder"] The rest [of the Leviathan hide] will be spread by the Blessed Holy One upon the walls of Jerusalem, and its splendor will shine from one end of the world to the other; as it is said: "And nations shall walk at your light, and kings at the brightness of your rising."
Baba Batra 74b – translation based on the Soncino Talmud.

Notice that in the end nothing is wasted and nothing is lost, either from us nor from what afflicts us. While not everyone is equal in merit, everyone gets a "portion" of the World to Come. And as for Leviathan, well, what once threatened to destroy us will in time sustain us; what once menaced the universe will ultimately serve to illuminate it.

Learn more in The Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism.